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Yemen: The war of all against all?

Yemen is notoriously unpredictable; but the only thing that is certain is that its internal conflicts are not likely to end any time soon

Mark N. Katz,  Special to Addis Standard


The 17th Century English political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, posited that the primordial “state of nature” without government is characterized by bellum omnium contra omnes, or the “war of all against all.” With the recent resignation of Yemeni President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi and his prime minister, Yemen appears to be descending into just such a conflict. The collapse of the Hadi government, though, is not so much the cause of the increasing conflict in Yemen as it is the result of it.

While not literally a conflict in which everyone is fighting against everyone else, there are a bewildering number of actors contending with one another in Yemen, including former President Saleh, now also former President Hadi, the southern secessionists, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Shi’a Huthis (who have recently overrun much of what had been North Yemen), Sunni tribesmen and others not linked to AQAP, and the urban-based Arab Spring democrats who rose up so strongly in 2011.

To begin to understand what is going on in Yemen now, it is necessary to start first with former President Ali Abdallah Saleh, who came to power in North Yemen in 1978 and then extended his rule to all Yemen in 1990 when North and South united. While he was never able to subdue all of Yemen’s fractious groups, he was a master of playing different groups off against each other – at least until the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011. As a result of growing internal opposition, declining external support, increasing disaffection within the security services, and becoming seriously injured in a bomb blast, Saleh turned over the presidency to his vice president, Hadi, in 2012. Saleh, though, did not go into exile, but has stayed in Yemen where he remains a powerful political force due to his strong ties with the security services, which became displeased with the new president when he dismissed some (but not all) Saleh loyalists from leadership positions.

The southern secessionist cause stems from the 1994 civil war in which the leadership of former Marxist South Yemen tried and failed to regain independence due to their disappointment with Saleh’s not sharing power with them as had been promised in the negotiations leading up to unity in 1990. Saleh defeated them with the help of Islamists based in the north. Ever since then, southerners have chafed at what they see as a northern occupation. Originally based on the former Marxists, the secessionist cause has attracted broader support within the former South. Its weakness has been that the population of the former South is much smaller than that of the former North.
AQAP has received widespread foreign media coverage outside. Some of its members, though, are not Yemeni jihadists, but Saudi ones who were driven out of the Kingdom after launching attacks against Saudi citizens in 2003.


AQAP seems to thrive in Yemen not so much because it has popular support there but because it has been able to take advantage of the Yemeni government’s weakness as well as its distraction with its other opponents. The unpopularity with the Yemeni public of the American drone campaign against AQAP – and the accidental civilian casualties it has caused – has resulted in this group receiving more local sympathy than it might otherwise have achieved.
The Huthis have also gotten much publicity recently – especially since their takeover of the capital, Sanaa, which led to the resignation of President Hadi.


Based in the far north of Yemen, foreign media frequently point out that the Huthis are from Yemen’s large Shi’a minority. What is less often noted is that the North Yemeni monarchy/imamate (which ruled from independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918 until its overthrow in 1962) was also Shi’a, and that Shi’as (albeit not always especially religious ones) have played an important role in the northern leadership since then. While they are both anti-American and anti-Israeli, the Huthis are also opposed to AQAP as well as the rise of other Sunni Islamist forces in Yemen.

Sunni Islamists gained influence when Saleh used them first to combat the southern secessionists in 1994 and later enlisted them in the fight against the Huthis. Saleh, of course, did not want them to become too strong.
Gaining inspiration from events in Tunisia and Egypt in particular, a strong urban-based Arab Spring democratic opposition rose up against Saleh in 2011. Ceding power to Hadi in 2012 was supposed to be the first step in a process leading to subsequent presidential elections that would be competitive. But rivalry soon arose between the former president and the new president. Indeed, some believe that the reason why the Huthis have been able to seize so much of northern Yemen, including the capital, is that Saleh loyalists in the security services refused to fight them, but saw them as tacit allies in undermining Hadi. Yemen’s Arab Spring democrats have recently staged protests against the Huthis.

Many – especially in Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni monarchies of the Gulf – believe that the Huthis are strongly backed by Iran, and support Tehran’s interests. Close observers of Yemeni politics note, however, that the relationship appears to be far more tenuous, and that the Huthis do not heed Iranian advice even if they receive some support for them (which, by the way, is typical of how Yemeni governments and opposition groups that receive external support operate).

What will happen next? Yemen is notoriously unpredictable. One intriguing possibility (as noted in a January 25 New York Times article) is that even though the American drone campaign has been curtailed at their behest, the Huthis and the U.S. might make common cause against AQAP. Another is that with Hadi out of the way, the Huthis and the security service personnel loyal to Saleh will now turn on each other. The only thing that is certain is that Yemen’s internal conflicts are not likely to end any time soon.

Ed’s Note: Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in the USA.


Photo caption: A Yemeni army officer lifted by anti-government protesters, chants slogans as he and others celebrate in Sanaa President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure for medical treatment.
Photo: AP


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